NC’s tourist trails

An Internet search for tourism trails spawns a list of results including biking in Texas, rail travel in England, a tour of “Sex in the City” sites in New York and a heritage trail in Washington, D.C.

But the trail at the top of the list are North Carolina’s own HomegrownHandmade trails. The trails are designed to take visitors to arts and farm locations across the state’s Foothills, Piedmont and Coastal regions. Among the 16 trails are the memorably-named “Hushpuppies, Pimento Cheese and Sweet Tea,” “Music, Millponds and Mousetraps.”

The trails grew out of a grant awarded to the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina Cooperative Extension and HandMade in America for a project to stimulate sustainable tourism statewide and to showcase the state’s rural riches. Despite this aim, the trail project abruptly stops when it reaches Western North Carolina. The farthest trail travelers will get is Cleveland County – where the towns of Shelby and Kings Mountain are located.

When and if the HomegrownHandmade trails incorporate Western North Carolina, they will become part of an already well-developed tourism system capitalizing on the trail model. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area was designated by Congress and the President in November 2003 in recognition of the unique character, culture, and natural beauty of Western North Carolina and their significance to the history of our nation.

Visitors exploring the BRNHA who are interested in crafts may choose to visit any of several major sites such as the Mountain Heritage Center in Cullowhee, Music of North Carolina Handicrafts in Waynesville or YMI Cultural Center in Asheville that have been identified as craft destinations. Or The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, published by HandMade in America, leads visitors on eight driving tours along scenic byways and back roads to more than 500 galleries, studios, heritage sites, historic inns, and restaurants serving local cuisine.

A similar book, Farms, Gardens and Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina, provides six auto loop trails off of the Blue Ridge Parkway through 21 counties in Western North Carolina.

The trail model is popular in part because it encourages travelers to keep going — and keep spending. An economic impact study cited in the development of the North Carolina Birding Trail stated that on a similar trail in Texas travelers devoted an average of 31 days/year to birding on the trail and averaged expenditures of $78.50 per person, per day. Nationwide more than 71 million Americans spent nearly $45 billion (in retail sales) on observing, feeding, or watching wildlife in the US in 2006, according to a US Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.

“When we first discussed the WNC Fly Fishing Trail Guide and Map idea, we decided that a ‘trail’ seemed easy to conceptually follow,” said Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Travel and Tourism Authority. “Our ‘trail’ spans the length of Jackson County, and it was our hope that fishermen would want to fish the whole ‘trail’ of 15 marked spots. We also knew that the ‘golf trails’ had been successful in other places and felt we could market the same type of concept effectively to fishermen.”

The success of any trail is a question of both supply and demand. A Canadian university study of trails and tourism posed the important question: Is there a tourist market share that will be interested in a specific trail and are there enough sites to make the trail worth traveling?

With those criteria met the development and maintenance of a tourist trail relies on “the four As of tourism” — attraction, access, accommodation and advertising — which address issues including whether the area is culturally or historically interesting, who can travel the trail, if there are places to stay and places to eat along the trail, if there is a good map of the trail and if people know it even exists.

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